A few weeks ago, I was privileged to see a wonderfully rich film about the life and teachings of Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik. The film was presented by the Seattle Hebrew Academy with support from Marty Selig — thank you to both! Rabbi Soloveitchik was widely known by the simple but revealing title of “The Rav.” I do not use that term “widely known” loosely. The Rav was a teacher to generations of Yeshiva University students, exerting a deep and far-reaching influence on the lives and teachings of rabbis, educators and laymen. He was the founding force of the Maimonides School in Boston, one of the earliest and most visionary day schools in the U.S.
I could go on and on to list his many achievements. Famously, he is seen as the spiritual/intellectual progenitor of “Modern” or “Centrist” Orthodoxy. The Rav was an active descendant of a long line of important and famous rabbinic leaders in Eastern Europe, but he also received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Berlin, which at that time, during the 1930s, was one of the premier intellectual centers in Europe.
Unfortunately for me, I was not one of the Rav’s students, though I’ve had the immense pleasure of receiving his teachings through his writings and through many of his students as my teachers. The Rav has been a major force in my personal Jewish journey, seeking to integrate the two conflicting and complimentary traditions of “Athens” and “Jerusalem,” the philosophic/artistic traditions of Western civilization and the revealed traditions of our covenanted people.
In contemplating the immeasurable influence of the Rav, I find myself returning to a timeless and timely question: What makes for great teaching? It is one of those questions where we often are left with an answer along the lines of Potter Stewart’s famous quip about pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced…but I know it when I see it.”
On the one hand, there is a significant kernel of truth to Stewart’s opinion. On the other hand, it is nearly useless as a legal doctrine for a court to actually decide what is or is not pornographic. To define excellent teaching based on “I know it when I see it” is useless in crafting policy, in addressing the very real, practical challenge of finding great teachers, nurturing them, keeping them.
Teaching is increasingly described by educational researchers as an “art.” What are the elements that comprise the art of great teaching? I suggest that if we adults look back to the great teachers we’ve been exposed to, we can identify some elements (Note: the following is not a comprehensive list):
1) Passionate commitment to the subject matter and an accompanying facility, skill, almost a playful artistry with that subject’s richness. There is a deep joy that great teachers exhibit in the subject they are teaching. While we sometimes think that a great teacher could teach any subject, this is rarely if ever the case. The greatness of the learning experience is inseparable from the greatness of the subject being taught.
2) A comparable passion to communicate the teacher’s love of the subject matter to his/her students. Like an overflowing spring, the great teacher is compelled to convert the student, to not just expose the student to the greatness of the matter being taught, but that teacher wants passionately for his/her students to share that love for the subject being taught.
3) A commitment to ongoing learning — that the teacher, too, is a student who him or herself benefited from the learning at the feet of another master teacher, that the teacher’s ongoing enjoyment of the subject leads to constant learning and growth in that subject area. The Rav writes of the influence of two important formative teachers in his life, his father and his mother, and the impact they both had on his intellectual/spiritual development. Like artists in fields we recognize more readily as art, such as the great pianist or painter, a technical mastery of the subject is a necessary but not sufficient condition.
Positive and critical influences from others, virtues of temperament, and dedication, help create the master teacher; hence, the increasingly important role of mentors in creating good teaching. Mentors are akin to the violin teacher or even the athletic coach. To hand a teacher a written curriculum after having sat through years of lectures and written term papers will be marginally effective in creating great or even good teaching. Necessary as such basic work is for good teaching, ultimately supporting talented, knowledgeable novice teachers requires the deeply interpersonal relationship with a master teacher mentor, centered around the subject matter and the arts and sciences of teaching it well and teaching it artistically.
All of us immediately recognize the importance of great teaching. A vibrant democracy depends on a well-informed populace. Appreciating the complex and rich themes of our nation’s history, grasping the complexity of issues we face as a nation and the many political and societal forces impacting policy choices requires a seriously educated polity.
Lack of a meaningful education leads to demagoguery, a populace easily persuaded by skilled rhetoric devoid of substance. We cannot afford to forget that Hitler was elected through a democratic process! Additionally, for our country to compete internationally we must be able to educate our young to prepare them for an increasingly complex technological marketplace. One of the prime motivations for the Gates Foundation’s investing billions of dollars in education is just this: To upgrade our decreasingly competitive work force due to a deficient educational system.
For us Jews, the imperative of education, of Talmud Torah, is first and foremost a religious/spiritual/legal obligation. Our Talmudic literature lists many commandments — including some of the loftiest, “ethical” ones (“visiting the sick,” “welcoming guests”) — whose total weight is compared to the single commandment of “teaching Torah.” Our tradition, being more focused on action than belief, values education for the simple, practical benefit of educating us as to what the proper course of action is. The Talmud asks which is greater: Action or learning? The answer: Learning, since it leads to action. Jewish tradition further adds to the benefits of learning Torah; it brings one in direct communication with the Divine, with God’s infinitely meaningful and spiritually fulfilling, revealed Torah.
I could go on — and anyone reading this could as well — to list other reasons why education is so critical to the health of our country, its future, as well as the well-being and future of the Jewish people.
In looking at Rabbi Soloveitchik, an example of the nearly infinitely positive impact of great teaching, the question of what makes great teaching, the centrality of education for both our country and our people, all lead logically to the following challenge: Why do we value education so little? Why are our actions so pitifully inadequate in response to what we purportedly value? Why do we as a society pay our teachers so much less than professionals in other vital service professions?
One modest proposal: A significant and highly publicized master teacher award for that individual who embodies the special qualities of great teaching, who inspires and captivates the hearts and minds of our Jewish children. Here are some examples of such awards:
1) The Milken Foundation in Los Angeles provides a meaningful $25,000 award for teaching excellence in general education;
2) The Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award, for Jewish teachers, a minimum $2,500, matched at some level by local donors, for teachers at the local, communal level. It is much too small, financially, in my opinion. Though we should be pleased with the notoriety afforded to Jewish teachers by this award, the amount conveys to our materialistic culture a less-than-serious level of honor and recognition;
3) The Covenant Foundation awards $50,000 to outstanding Jewish educators, but the problem with this award is it is almost exclusively for high-visibility educators, typically administrators and/or educational leaders. Of course, such leadership is vital and should be recognized. The Covenant award is also national and few are awarded each year, so rarely if ever is the classroom teacher a Covenant recipient.
I propose a significant ($25,000-$50,000) award for a teacher or two in this community, on a regular basis, annually or biennially. Some of you may be wondering, “If you think this is such a good idea, why doesn’t the Samis Foundation do it?”
These words represent merely one “rabbi’s opinion;” this is not a position paper of the Samis Foundation. Organization considerations aside, the award I propose should come from the community as a whole, not from one funder. Our entire community benefits in incomparable ways from the gifted, talented teachers in our community. It’s time we as a community expressed that appreciation appropriately.